The Archeology of the Haytor Quarries

At Higher Haytor carpark I joined a diverse group of 24 people from youth to maturity, plus a dog. There we met our leader, Phil Newman and were briefed by Albert from Natural England on the hazards of slippery surfaces and thirsty ticks.

First stop was a small quarry carpeted with “Moor Stone”, which is stone broken off from tors and fallen randomly on the ground. The concept of something as static and inedible as granite being “harvested” was slightly alien, but evidently this has happened from Prehistoric, through Medieval times onwards – Widecombe & Ilsington Churches are products of this harvest. In fact quarrying didn’t need to develop until early 19th century. Phil introduced us to 3 successive methods of quarrying: Wedge & Groove, Feather & Tare; and Blasting – this set the theme for our forensic investigations of subsequent quarries.

Next stop was Harrow Barrow. Here we learned that George Templer had started The Granite Tramway in 1819 and London enterprises, including London Bridge, became recipients of Haytor granite: suddenly Dartmoor seemed less remote. Later, Phil embroidered the character of George, a driven man, eccentric and reveler, whose antics included nurturing tame foxes, borrowing a consecrated church chandelier and amending any confrontation with a poem.

London Bridge was built using Dartmoor granite – a postcard from the early 1890’s. (Copy of original postcard: Wikipedia Commons)

At Emsworthy Rocks we found Granite Tramway setts, some intact & undisturbed – others half finished & abandoned to add confusion to the chronology of the tramway. Jagged tooth-like reeves emerged as field divisions, early sculptural forms punctuating the landscape.

Next onto Rubble Heap Quarry. En route we passed a ruin, possible early accommodation for quarry workers, reflected in one of the 19th century etchings supplied by Phil to help transport us back in time. Spoil heaps and overburden tips unfolded the directions and rhythms of the tramway. In the quarry we were flanked by a large vertical rock surfaces: one natural and rampant with growth, the other man-made and tidy – a theatre of before and after. As a sculptor I felt united with the marks of early stone masons including the neat undulations left by Wedge and Groove, the regularly spaced button-hole remains of Feather & Tare, the long dramatic vertical shafts drilled for explosives. It was awesome to imagine the physical feat and duration of this task without the machine tools of the present.

After lunch, we trundled into Holwell Quarry which was a feast of gorgeous colours, rounded rocks and electric rowan berries. A nearby ruin engulfed in undergrowth featured in another 19th century etching – sporting a crab winch, portable crane and a hive of tool sharpening activity. Further on a contrasting building in the form of a granite igloo was once home to a store of black powder explosives. An abandoned broken pound-stone nestled alongside the path like a contemporary abstract sculpture.

Finally we headed back to Haytor amidst a swarm of flying ants settling on some people’s heads like crazy hairnets. Haytor Quarry itself was a sound montage of rippling water, splashing dogs, foreign accents and children’s voices. A rusty crane with 2 meaty metal stabilizing rings coexisted with exotic waterlilies. A feather and tare concealed in a hole was secret evidence of an industrial past. Tracing the tramway sets homewards, we spotted more evidence carved into the granite setts: “S”, “W” and “4C” , possible initials and dates to feed our imagination before the impact of a hectic car park and a welcoming ice cream van.
With thanks to Phil and Albert for enabling us to share this experience

Blog article by Angela Holmes (Artist), photos by Viv Styles

The next in this fascinating walk series ….’Flora of Dartmoor’ is taking place this Saturday 10 September. Learn about Dartmoor’s diverse flora, exploring the different habitats along the historic Granite Tramway.  Guided by the Devonshire Association’s Botany Section and Albert Knott (Natural England).  For all the details and to book your place 

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